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Facts, Fiction and Other Stuff

Thank you so much to everyone who joined us for our first Growing Families event, which took place at the Friends’ Meeting House in Manchester City Centre on Thursday 6th October 2016.  We really enjoyed ourselves, and we hope that you did too.

Please take a look at our Storify of the tweets from the day:

https://storify.com/GrowingFamilies/growing-families-facts-fiction-and-other-stuff

Our Steller story round up:

https://steller.co/s/6DYhGwTdzv2

And the gallery of photographs, all taken by the fabulous Molly Aparicio-Hancox:

https://growingfamilies.co.uk/photo-gallery/

We have been reviewing the feedback that you gave to us on the day, and we have sent out surveys to all attendees to find out more about what you enjoyed, what could have been better and what you’d like to see from us in the future.  We will also be asking our speakers and sponsors for their thoughts – it is so important to us to hear from everybody who took part.  We will be using all of your thoughts and ideas to help us to shape our plans for the future of Growing Families.

In the meantime we’d like to share just a couple of wishes with you from the wishes tree on the day:

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We will keep these, and other, wishes with us as we look to the future.  Our thanks once again to everyone who helped us to tackle that crucial postnatal information, to make it accessible to families and to help families to face the challenges ahead.

The Growing Families team

Your Human Rights in Childbirth

Thank you to everyone who joined us for our inaugural Growing Families event in Manchester on Thursday 6th October.  Whilst we reflect on the feedback and think about what happens next, we are delighted to continue with our blog series.  Our thanks to Rebecca Schiller of Birthrights for this piece on your human rights in childbirth.

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You may not feel like it at times but you are the same rational, adult human you were before you took the job of incubator for new life. The idea behind the human rights in childbirth movement is nothing more than that. Human rights principles and the legal framework that makes them powerful insist that you are treated with dignity and respect during pregnancy and birth and are never simply as the means to an end.

All public bodies and servants (like hospitals and the doctors and midwives who work in them) must ensure your human rights (as set out in the Human Rights Act 1998 and a series of national, regional and international agreements) are adhered to throughout your pregnancy and birth.

This is good news for you and your baby as there’s a strong relationship between safe, quality care and rights-respecting care. Care that puts you – the pregnant woman – at its heart is better for everyone.

Remember:

  • You have a right to receive safe maternity care that’s appropriate to your needs.
  • You have the right to privacy and confidentiality.
  • You have the right to equality and freedom from discrimination.
  • You have a right to bodily autonomy during pregnancy and birth. Whatever the situation, whatever the intervention you must be asked for your consent to any procedure and always have the right to say ‘no’.
  • Those caring for you must ensure they explain risks and benefits in a unbiased way that you can understand. They mustn’t only give you generic leaflets or one-sided information but must adapt their discussion to your circumstances and situation.
  • You should be given pain relief when you request it.
  • All reasonable efforts to ensure you can decide where and how you give birth should be made. There shouldn’t be blanket bans on certain women having certain kinds of births. Hospitals can have policies and criteria for birth centres and homebirths but women outside of these criteria should be enabled to access these birth setting if their requests can reasonably be accommodated.

You can find out more about your rights in pregnancy and birth at birthrights.org.uk.

Birthrights provides advice on lawful maternity care to families and healthcare professionals. We offer training on respectful care to midwives and doctors, conduct research into related issues and campaign to protect pregnant women using the human rights framework. You can support our work by hosting a #newchapter book club or becoming a monthly supporter.

Follow us on twitter @birthrightsorg and sign-up to our newsletter.

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Rebecca Schiller
October 2016

A day in the life of a human rights centred midwife

We are so proud to have Birthrights as one of our sponsors for “Growing Families: Facts Fiction and Other Stuff” in Manchester on Thursday 6th October.  Here their trustee, Simon Mehigan, writes for us about what makes a human rights centred midwife.  The image at the top of this piece is the “heart values” word cloud from the #MatExp campaign, put together by Growing Families team member Emma Jane Sasaru.

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Today started as many of my days do with me going straight into a meeting, no time to grab a drink or check my emails. The meeting was discussing how we improve services for women accessing early pregnancy and gynaecology. By redesigning our estate we can improve the journey for these women. How does that relate to their human rights? Well, ensuring women are cared for in an area that’s private and appropriately staffed with skilled nurses and medical staff means women that are suffering a miscarriage or early complications in pregnancy are appropriately cared for and supported. Midwives working in a hospital setting often don’t have any dealings with women below 20 weeks so its important that I make sure that the way in which these women are cared for compliments the midwifery care they receive and promotes the ethos of women centred care. If the care we give is based on the needs and wishes of individual women then we will be meeting their human rights.

Walking round the maternity unit I meet one of our new consultant midwives who talks to me about a women she has been caring for. This woman is very keen to have a vaginal birth but is being discouraged by some of the medical staff who have concerns about her risks. Midwives and obstetricians have an obligation to talk to women about any risk factors they may have. Unfortunately every Dr this woman has met has felt the need to reiterate this woman’s risks factors. As she clearly states “I know the risks, I’ve been told them, I’ve researched them, I just want the best chance to have a good birth experience”. The skill to being a woman centred midwife or doctor is to speak to women on an equal footing. To remove the power dynamic that is so often present in the relationship between health professionals and those they care for is one of the fundamental steps in building a trusting relationship. Trust is, I feel, one of the building blocks of a human rights based relationship with those we care for.

I meet a young woman who has recently given birth to her 1st child but is still here 6 days later. The baby has been under the care of the neonatologists. This intelligent woman has become a mother and has experienced first hand how the “just in case” approach and “Dr knows best” has led her to stay in hospital all this time. She’s a health professional and the work part of her has made her question the doctors, she doesn’t feel the treatment and the investigations her baby has had were necessary, but now she’s a mum and the very rational, logical, evidence based approach she uses every day at work has become clouded by the emotions that come with being a mother combined with all the changes taking place in her body following birth. We talk through how she feels, she comments on how the care she received was great until the baby was born and then it all “got out of control”. She has been told she can go home today so we agree that she will write to me, detailing her experiences as a mum and as a health professional. I can then use that to help me challenge some of the policies, procedures and behaviours that exist in the organisation that don’t support a culture of respecting the human rights of mothers and babies.

My afternoon is spent trying to support the managers in staffing the unit safely, rewriting a job advert for midwives focusing on attracting candidates that believe in women centred care and the role the midwife plays in facilitating choice and helping women and their families to have a positive birth experience. I then respond to a complaint from a woman who feels she wasn’t listened to when she was in pain, didn’t have her wishes respected or her beliefs.

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New book by Birthrights Chief Executive Rebecca Schiller

All of the above makes my day sound pretty depressing but actually it’s full of positive stuff. I see midwives and doctors supporting women, being kind, communicating well and appropriately. I see staff members supporting each other with guidance and tips on how to manage particular situations and I see many, many happy faces of women, their partners and their families who have recently met the latest arrival to their family.

I haven’t laid a hand on a pregnant woman’s abdomen, or caught a baby as its mother pushes it out or helped a new dad figure out how to put a nappy on his new child. That doesn’t make me any less of a midwife nor does it mean I’ve not been able to act in a way that promotes the human rights of childbearing women.

What makes a “human rights centred midwife”?

Kindness, compassion, consideration, respect, honesty and a fundamental belief in a woman’s right to choice.

You know what’s interesting? You could take out “human rights centred” because these are all the qualities that make a great midwife and having spent 22 years working in maternity services the overwhelming majority of midwives I have met have all those qualities. Unfortunately sometimes the services they work in, the culture of the organisation in which they are employed doesn’t support them in demonstrating all these qualities. Fear of litigation, of not following guidelines or of being labelled a “maverick” midwife by supporting choices women make that might not be the norm, make some midwives act towards women in a way that they don’t fell comfortable with. This makes some midwives move on, some leave the profession all together and some give in, become part of the culture.

My words of wisdom…..

Be brave, be strong…….be a midwife…..

 

Simon Mehigan – Birthrights Trustee
Deputy Director of Midwifery
Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

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www.birthrights.org.uk

Trust Your Instincts

We are very proud to have eRedbook as one of four Oak sponsors for our event in Manchester on Thursday 6th October. In this blog piece they have interviewed one of the mums using eRedbook, Daniela Tanneberger, about being a mother, the difference between having your first and second child, and how the eRedbook helps her to manage her new baby’s health.

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Daniela, mother to eight-year-old son Robin and three-month old daughter Emma, lives in Chessington. She’s originally from Germany and moved to the UK in 2015. As part of the London field test, her midwife told her about the eRedbook and she registered an account.

How was it for you to give birth in the UK, compared to your experience in Germany where you had your son?

I found the care system in the UK very different from the system in Germany, although I quickly adjusted. You get fewer check-ups and ultrasounds in the UK, but at the same time I’m not sure if all those appointments in Germany were really needed. Here you get a phone number and they tell you to call if something’s wrong, but you don’t really want to call. Once I did phone the maternity ward to rebook an appointment and was told by someone who sounded really annoyed that I should dial a different number. I was ready to tell them “Hey, I’m the pregnant lady, it should be me that’s emotional!” I was lucky that it was my second pregnancy and I was more comfortable.

Was pregnancy easier the second time around?

The second time was more relaxed. I knew what I had to buy, I didn’t waste time looking up the best buggy or buy stuff that I didn’t need. With my son it took me three months to find out that he liked the sound of the hairdryer as white noise. With my daughter I used the hairdryer straight away: she loves the sound as well and I use it to dry her off after a bath.

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You are currently using the eRedbook to keep track of your baby’s health. What were your reasons for registering?

I use technology on a daily basis but I wouldn’t say I’m really into it – I’m not interested in the latest tablets or fitness gadgets. However, when my midwife told me about the eRedbook, I was immediately interested. The reason was that I travel all the time and I always lose paper documents. It’s much easier to have everything available online.

Would you recommend the eRedbook to other parents?

Yes, I definitely recommend the eRedbook to new parents, I absolutely love it. I’m terrible with paperwork, so I appreciate that I can log in to my daughter’s information now at all times.

The other day I spoke to my doctor and he complained that people are always late at appointments because they leave their red book at home and need to go back to get it. I told him that there’s no reason to be late as they can use the eRedbook with their smartphone. We all know how difficult it can be to get everything ready when you go to a doctor’s appointment; carrying the baby while scrambling to get the changing bag, dummy, car seat, etc. The eRedbook just makes it much easier.

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What other advice do you have for new parents?

Trust your instincts. The guidance you receive sometimes seems really strict: ‘don’t use a dummy’, ‘do not co-sleep’, ‘do not spoil your baby’, etc. The truth is that it can be hard to maintain a strict routine, especially when you’re breastfeeding and your baby feeds on demand, and when your baby is not well it can be very comforting to let them sleep with you. You will get a lot of advice from family members and everyone means well, but different generations do different things. So trust your instincts and do what feels right to you.

 

Maddie Kortenaar interviewing Daniela Tanneberger
eRedbook
September 2016

Bringing Up Baby – it’s all in the moves

Ania Witkowska (Dip IBMT)*1 was born in London and raised her family in Manchester. She is a Somatic Movement Educator and Therapist who specialises in the perinatal period working with parents to be, parents and babies in individual and group settings. She also runs professional training workshops and offers supervision. She has a private practice based in Berlin, Germany, teaches internationally and offers sessions via Skype. You can connect with Ania via her blog and website at www.witkowska.com.

We are privileged to have Ania write for us as part of the Growing Families blog series.

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As a Somatic Movement Educator and Therapist I spend a lot of time trying to dispel myths and encourage people to see things from a different perspective. Our value systems are intrinsically based on a premise – that there is a hierarchy of mind over matter, or that the brain is superior to the body which has been repeatedly challenged. In recent years there is a growing body of scientific research that demonstrates the complex and sophisticated relationship between brain, body and mind. But though the researchers may be excited by the detail of these new ‘discoveries’, this knowledge really isn’t so new. Every parent is witness to the egalitarian process of development as they play with their babies – but it can be hard to appreciate something when you know little about it.

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Our babies grow and learn through movement. The developmental movement sequence that takes us from curled up to standing up is not just about building muscles and practicing balance. As we move we also build our neural connections, we experience and express emotions, we learn how to connect and focus in our world. As each pattern elicits and integrates particular reflexes it teaches us something more about ourselves and creates new possibilities for relationship and communication.

So how is it that the baby books seem to consign this rich and informative dance of development to a simple series of movement milestones? They encourage parents to race through that first year anxiously waiting for each seemingly miraculous achievement rather than relaxing and sharing in the fascinating process of getting there. Worrying when their child is not yet doing ‘whatever’ and unaware of the experiences a baby needs to have to support this moving journey.

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It’s not just about the positions a baby can get into, it’s about how they get there by themselves that makes a difference. A process of yield, push, reach and pull, identified by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen*2 underlies each new achievement and allows babies to pace themselves, to find their safety before taking a risk. Building their confidence as well as their ability.

It’s not that hard to gain this knowledge, with guidance the body remembers, it just needs a bit of encouragement and a comfortable floor to roll and stretch out on. When parents try a movement themselves all kinds of things come to light. For example if a parent has tried to crawl on their belly like their baby they will know that the movement is initiated by a push from the big toe so they can see the disadvantage of wearing socks that will slip and frustrate their efforts. They will notice how hard it is to belly crawl on a carpet and how impossible movement becomes when their body is stiff and tense. This information will help them provide their baby with an appropriate environment and to intervene sensitively recognising the difference between effort and total frustration. And if they should join their baby down on the floor to try it out with them, their child will see the whole body movement and recognise it, will be encouraged by this moment of connection and empathy. Their relationship will deepen.

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But, as The Cat in the Hat would say, “ …that is not all, oh no, that is not all…” You see something magic happens when we take some time to experience our physical sensations, to notice how we feel rather than focus on what we think. We slow down, take care of ourselves and are better able to deal with the demands of caring for a baby. In a world which trains us to look outside ourselves and our own experience for answers exploring the movement patterns helps people to look inside, activate those mirror neurons and trust the wisdom of their body. Acknowledging the value of these intuitive responses builds parent’s confidence and enriches their experience and enjoyment of their new role. It really is a win – win situation!

Much has changed in childcare practice and I look forward to the day that every 12-year-old will explore the developmental movements in their biology lessons. Until then however why not join me in working to ensure that an understanding of the process of movement development and how it underpins relationship and learning becomes standard knowledge for parents and anyone who works with them.

 

*1  Institute for Integrative Bodywork and Movement Therapy  http://www.ibmt.co.uk/About-IBMT.html

*2  Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen is the originator of Body Mind Centering™  http://www.bodymindcentering.com/about

 

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Ania Witkowska
September 2016

 

 

 

Connecting Through Babywearing

Jenny Neill of Connect Emotional Education is kindly sponsoring our breakout session on Babywearing, and has written for us here about why babywearing means so much to her.

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When I found out about the Growing Families conference I knew that I had to be involved.  I have always worked with children (as a teacher) and in the last five years I have  worked more closely with parents too, culminating in me setting up my own business ‘Connect Emotional Education’ this year where I provide 1:1 support and parent workshops in the area of emotional wellbeing of children and teenagers.

I’m really happy to be sponsoring the Babywearing breakout session.  Babywearing has been important in my parenting journey and I am a trained babywearing peer supporter which means I help other parents in my local area to find out about babywearing.  I love introducing new parents to this simple way of meeting their babies’ needs that has a myriad of other benefits too.

Before I became a parent I had learned, as I did further study in Emotional Education, about the evolutionary theories about babies’ attachment to their parents.  It made total sense that a baby who had spent time growing inside their mother would notice a sudden change once they had been born and that this was down, in part, to the fact that this was something that had been a definite advantage in the days when we lived in caves and had very real physical threats.

For a few years I worked as a Baby Sensory teacher and this gave me a great insight into baby development and I was also lucky to be working in Sheffield, which some call ‘The Sling City’ due to its’ large numbers of babywearers and babywearing support sessions.  I would watch lots of parents come to my classes with their babies wrapped up in various slings and carriers and I saw, first hand, how these babies looked content and settled.  NB – there’ll probably be a time when your baby is looking far from content and settled and you will hope that nobody sees you as you feel sure you are the worst advert for babywearing ever – this happens!  I was convinced by what I saw and decided it was something that I wanted to do with my baby when he came along.

So I did and at nearly three years old we are carrying still, for shorter periods of time and on my back now as wearing evolves as your little one gets older.  I don’t know how long we’ll enjoy this but it’s so much easier that carrying in arms at this age – toddlers are heavy!

 

Neuroscience

A lot of the work that I do with older children and teenagers involves understanding the reptile and mammal parts of the brain so I’m going to start there.  Babies’ brains are not finished at birth and will continue to grow and be shaped by their experiences in the first years of life.  The lower (reptile) parts of their brain are quite well developed as these deal with survival aspects like breathing, feeding,  getting rid of waste and sounding the alert (through crying) if they’re in pain, discomfort or hungry.  The upper parts of the brain (those associated with mammals and humans in particular) are not very developed at all which is why when I look at this picture of my son from when he was about six weeks old I’m left thinking, “Where is the rest of his head?!”

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These upper parts of the brain develop rapidly throughout the first three years of life (which is why you might have heard about various organisations supporting parents and children during the first 1000 days).  Part of our role as parents is to provide nurturing experiences for our babies so that their brains develop and grow.  They are learning about themselves and the world in every interaction so these need to be positive (or challenges dealt with in a positive way).  When they have positive interactions pathways in their brain are strengthened.  Being close to a loving parent also helps to calm baby and send lots of chemicals whizzing through their brain and body.  Oxcytocin is particularly important, sometimes called the ‘cuddle chemical’, and it’s released through touch, sucking and warmth.  Touch and providing warmth can be achieved through holding baby (something that we instinctively do); babywearing using slings and carriers can be used to make this easier – even small babies get heavy after a while! Having your hands free to do other things is also a benefit (particularly if you have other children to look after as well).

If you want to find out more I have included some book recommendations at the bottom of this post.

 

Security

“Having that extra contact is wonderful. I think it makes them feel more secure.  I love the closeness.” – Lisa, mum of three

“One of my favourite things was carrying her in our sling.  I loved having the intimacy and whispering in her ears; being able to respond and have that degree of closeness to her was truly magical.” – Ben, dad of three, slingdads.co.uk

 As I briefly mentioned before, the world can be a new and confusing place for babies when they arrive. As they get older their understanding of the world increases but so does their awareness and this can lead them to need more security.  Wearing babies and toddlers can help them feel secure by keeping them physically close but also by having them close to you they can be included more in daily life and it’s easier to reassure them or explain what is happening as you move around.

Babies have a lot of things going on that they can’t understand and the main means they have of communicating is crying.  Laura, mum of two, sent this picture with the caption, ‘early evening walks in the ‘colic hours’ … relaxed and contented baby and mummy!’ There are various theories about what colic is but, when it occurs, a baby’s main method of communicating about their pain is through crying.  Parents will try anything and everything to help and it’s often reported that holding or wearing baby in an upright position can help.  Laura elaborates, “my son had horrendous colic.  My daughter (in the picture) didn’t but had some unsettled evenings that reminded me of my son’s colic and taking her out in the wrap was brilliant! I wish I’d have tried it first time round!”

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Adam, babywearing blogger, talks about the benefits of wearing his son close, “what I love about baby wearing is the closeness, the bonding we have enjoyed from birth to toddler.  Babies love it in the sling.  It calms them down.”

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Security for parents

I read the quote, “making the decision to have a child is momentous.  It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,” and it’s what I think of when I think about that time after birth.  I had been very anxious during pregnancy and was desperate for my baby to arrive safely then, as soon as he did, I was unnerved by not always being able to reach down and touch him as I had when he was a wriggly bump.  It’s not quite as simple of that but I can definitely understand the comments of two mums that I spoke to recently:

“I found babywearing hugely helpful. I suffered from PND and anxiety but could feel the pressure lift and my anxiety drop when I wore baby. By keeping her close it made me feel calmer.” – Rebecca, mum of one

“I have felt panicked when separated from both sons as infants.  Holding them close in a sling meant we felt connected.  I could feel their movements and hear their breathing.” – Natalie, mum of two

It’s a natural instinct to want to keep our babies close and meeting their needs as they grow is important too. Claire, from Honeybee Mama, sums it up when she says, “Now I can meet my son’s needs whilst still getting on with other stuff. So apart from the beautiful early days where all you want to do is hold them, slings are great for your sanity as your children grow.”

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Seeing the world through the eyes of your baby. Living in the moment.

Becoming a parent involves a big change, a really big change; in pace, priorities an perspective.  One thing that I hadn’t considered until a friend pointed it out was that connecting with your baby through babywearing could have the following impact on us as parents.

“For me, it took an actual baby looking at the world with such awe to make me truly look deeply at what was around me and be taken aback by it all.”  – Tracy G. Cassels, author of My Unexpected Consequence of Babywearing.

When you’re walking along wearing your little one it’s almost impossible to stop yourself from talking to them, pointing out things that you see along the way or around.  As they grow this inevitably involves stopping to touch leaves on trees, post letters, talk to people you see and your child can be more closely involved in these things when you wear them so it’s great for communication and so you roll along in a circle of communicating and connecting leading to more communicating and so on.

For a more in-depth discussion please see http://evolutionaryparenting.com/my-unexpected-consequence-of-babywearing/

This picture is of me wearing my son at around 8 months old.  We were on a very windy beach in Scotland and I remember his exhilaration at the wind in his face.  Being in the sling meant that I could get the balance right between letting him experience this new sensation but sheltering him from the wind when it started to get too much.

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Carry on wearing

Babywearing could be called baby, toddler and pre-schooler wearing (but it’s not a very snappy title).  I love a bit of myth-busting and it’s often thought that babies are too heavy to wear after a certain point.  It’s not true and may be down to finding the right sling or carrier for the next step on your babywearing journey.  I find it so much easier to carry my nearly three year old on my back in a carrier than I do to pick him up and carry him in my arms.  He walks about 90% of the time because he’s an active toddler but there are times when he’s too tired to walk or he’s fallen or another reason and then carrying him comes into its’ own again.  I spoke to two other parents about their experiences of carrying their older babies and children.  Louise, mum of one, spoke about the conscious effort she made to wear her son when she returned to work.  “I returned to work and our son was being cared for by my husband.  I felt that I would miss out on loads (of experiences and opportunities for connection) so continuing to carry at this time (10 months until now at 22 months) has really helped to keep us connected. Now he’s at nursery part time and I sling him there and back so we can have one on one time to talk about the day and ensure he is comforted during this transitional time.”

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Photo credit: Ellie Thouret

Ellie, sling consultant at Peekaboo Slings, said, “(when my son was 2 ½) I began carrying him home in a sling, pushing the babies in the buggy … this gave us the chance to talk while the babies were soothed by movement. He’d tell me about his day and I’d feel us reconnecting, finding our way through our new normal.” For more insight into this see http://peekabooslings.co.uk/why-i-carry-my-big-kid

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Photo credit: Ellie Thouret

I’m looking forward to the Growing Families conference, if you are attending and are interested in finding out more about babywearing you can attend the breakout session run by Victoria Ward from School of Babywearing.  There will also be a pop up sling library run by Ellie Thouret of Peekaboo Slings.  I hope the new parents attending will be inspired to have a go at babywearing – search for your local sling library or babywearing meet if you want to find out more information after the event or you can ask lots of questions at the event.  I love this quote which sums up the benefits of babywearing, both emotional and practical:

Babywearing can soothe our children, help us become a flexible ‘all-terrain’ family. Really it’s almost close to a super-power from something that’s a simple as a piece of fabric. Something that feels so instinctual and so good.” – Daniel Nisbet

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Books I love if you want more information on neuroscience and its’ implications for parenting

What Every Parent Needs To Know – Margot Sunderland

The Hormone of Closeness – Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg

Kiss Me! – Carlos González

Baby Calm – Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Why Love Matters – Sue Gerhardt

Baby Bliss – Dr Harvey Karp

Brain Insights cards (Love Your Baby, Fun While I’m One etc) – Deborah McNelis

 

Jenny Neill
2016
Connect Emotional Education

http://connectemotionaleducation.weebly.com/

https://www.facebook.com/Connect-Emotional-Education-637889949648340

https://twitter.com/jenconnectemed

Empathy – A Parent’s Ace Card

Family Links is a national charity dedicated to empowering children, parents, families and schools to be emotionally healthy.  We are honoured to have them as Oak sponsors of our event in Manchester this October. This is their second post for our blog series, and has been written for Growing Families by Sharon Lawton.

Sharon is a Parent Group Leader and Trainer for Family Links. She is an award winning Personal Performance Coach, Neuro Linguistic Programming Practitioner, Thought Field Therapist and Personality Profiling Specialist with over 10 years of experience of delivering conflict management, Personal Development and a wide portfolio of Parenting Programmes.

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Empathy!  Yes, I know what that is, I use it all the time!”

In my work as a parent coach and also a trainer of practitioners working with families and parents, this is a common response when I mention the word empathy. However, do we really know what empathy is and how powerful it can be in our relationships with our children (and in fact in all our relationships)? When I looked up the meaning of the word “empathy” I found this: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

But can we truly “understand” the feelings of another?  For me the difficulty I see is that we forget to stand in the other person’s shoes and see the situation from their emotional view point, and not our own – this is where the power of empathy lies.  How many times have you started to share something that you are really upset about and get a response like “Oh yes, I know exactly how you feel…” cue them recounting their story leaving yours to be side-lined. Or perhaps you got a response “Poor you! How awful! What you should do is…”  Again, there’s no empathy here; there’s a bit of sympathy and lots of trying to fix things! However, if you use empathy correctly, it has the power to heal, connect and transform relationships, making empathy a vital skill to learn as a parent.  It’s fundamental to our parenting tool box.

At Family Links we see empathy as the ability to see something from the other person’s emotional point of view; trying to sense what it’s like to be them by stepping into their shoes.  Not thinking about how we’d feel if the same thing were happening to ourselves. It means we have to stay emotionally neutral and also out of judgement. So you can see how tricky it might be, particularly where our children are concerned as it’s easy to get hooked in and respond emotionally.  However, empathy does allow us to think about the feelings behind the behaviour without agreeing with the actual behaviour.

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All of us feel angry, frustrated, lonely etc. at times, and this is the same for our children too. Children often act out feelings because they can’t put them into words – they might do this by being aggressive, tearful, shouting or becoming withdrawn, or even having a big tantrum because you won’t buy them an ice-cream after playgroup or because they weren’t picked for the football team. Being able to put yourself in your child’s shoes to understand their behaviour (not agree or condone it) means that we can parent assertively too!  An empathic response to our child’s moods makes our relationship with them happier and closer and, of course, children who are treated with empathy and respect will learn to be empathic and respectful to others.

That’s all very well, but for some of us it might all sound a bit “soft and fluffy”.  I certainly think about six or seven years ago my husband would have definitely been in this camp!  Our youngest son is, let’s say, a little “feisty” and empathy has been a tool I’ve tried to use in my parenting with him. Examples of empathic responses I’d use with my son are: “You look very angry with me”; “It can be disappointing when you’re in the middle of a game and the toys need to be put away” or “You sound very cross about that”. Many times it has helped to stop a potential meltdown or defuse some strong feelings.

Originally, my husband’s parenting style was more authoritarian.  A typical response might have been to say “stop making such a fuss about it” or “you’re so rude, I’m not listening to this anymore”. Those types of phrases can place blame or brush feelings aside that should be addressed. Over the years it’s been interesting to see how he has adopted a more empathic response towards me and the children how it’s made a big difference in our family.

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Let’s look at it another way.  Can you think of a situation where you turned to someone for support or advice and they failed to respect your feelings?  Dismissed how you felt?  Didn’t actually listen to you? How did you feel towards that person?  Can you think of another time when someone responded truly empathically to you, really tuning into your feelings? Listened without interrupting or telling you what to do?  How did you feel towards them? If we notice how helpful it can be for us when someone truly accepts the way we feel, then we will know that it will be similar for our children too.

That’s the theory, but what about in practise? There’s a whole language around empathy and sometimes it can be helpful just to have a starting point. So after listening to our child and trying to stay neutral emotionally ourselves, we can respond using open sentences beginning: “That seems”; “I wonder if”; “It can be hard when” or “You look”. Followed by suggesting how they might feel, then pausing and not going into “fix it mode”, (this is the powerful bit). Using this type of language opens up space for our children to think about their emotions and try to verbalise how they feel. By suggesting feelings our children might be experiencing we’re also helping develop their emotional vocabulary. We can follow it up with the second stage of offering a suggestion that might be helpful in that situation, but sometimes it’s not necessary.

So back to my husband – after 7 years or so he’s becoming pretty efficient at practising empathy even to the point that he will now say to me when I get frustrated with our children “It sounds like your frustrated with the kids! Remember Sharon, empathy is your ace card”!!!

 

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Sharon Lawton
September 2016